What happens to your cyber life when your real life ends?

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A new national study by researchers from Charles Sturt University and the University of Adelaide has found that most Australians are unprepared for death and disability when it comes to their digital assets.

Digital assets include anything that can be accessed and held online in digital form. Social media, iTunes accounts, banking and other financial and medical records, domain names, online businesses, bitcoins and emails are all included.

Results of the national survey – Estate Planning in Australia – indicate that Australians own a diverse array of digital assets, predominately social media, email and banking records.

Results of the survey showed that most people owned multiple digital assets, with only 18 per cent of those surveyed not owning any.

Over 71 per cent of those who had digital assets indicated they were unaware of what would happen to them when they died or became disabled.

This lack of understanding presents serious potential problems, particularly given the terms of service and privacy policies of digital providers and lack of unified legislation in the area.

Online service providers implement different strategies in dealing with accounts belonging to deceased users.

In most cases, closing an account requires close family to provide documentation to prove they have the right to request termination of the account. This does not usually allow those relatives to get access to the content of the accounts, leaving families without access to digitally stored memories of their deceased family member.

In some cases, online service providers automatically shut accounts down once they know an individual has died.

Service agreements between users and online platform operators usually stipulate that the contract is between the registered user and the operator.

Accordingly, online platform operators have been either unwilling or unable to allow relatives or trustees to access the personal records and other online material of the account holder in the event of death or disability.

Further, in terms of online content individuals don’t own the music, books and movies they ‘buy’ from companies such as Apple and Amazon so the digital assets can’t be passed on when they die.

Legislative reforms are currently underway in various countries to resolve some of the uncertainty.

Legislation that allows executors to manage the deceased’s digital assets has been enacted in most US states but not in Australia.

Have you included any instructions for your digital assets in your last will and testament?

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Written by Ben


Total Comments: 12
  1. 0

    There’s only one digit I’m interested in!

  2. 0

    It’s a major pain in the neck. There should be a way to download one’s e-mails (inbox and sent, etc.) so it can be stored on an external drive. Ditto the other things.

  3. 0

    I would advise everyone who has an electronic presence (even just the home computer with no internet access) to keep a secure record of all access codes, usernames and passwords. At least when the inevitable happens (and it will) family members can access your electronic world and do with it what they must.

    One work of warning though, if you have downloaded music, films, TV shows, books etc etc etc, be aware that you do not own these as you would had you bought the ‘real world’ version. The fee you pay to access these things is just that; a fee for access or rental if you prefer. They are not transferable nor can you bequeath your digital music collection as you could the old vinyl records or physical CDs.

    • 0

      “They are not transferable nor can you bequeath your digital music collection as you could the old vinyl records or physical CDs.”

      But if they are stored on your external hard drive, then that can be bequeathed. Whatever is on that hard drive then becomes the property of whomever you will it to, surely?

    • 0

      You’d think Dr Polymath but no. You have to check the small print at iTunes (for example) but you never own the download! And seriously who does that?

      Another example: say you had your music library on your laptop and it crashed and you ‘lost’ the entire library. iTunes does not have to allow you to re-download the music for free even though you might still have the record of purchase in your Apple iTunes account!

      There is also the condition that you can’t download it onto an infinite number of devices at the same time either.

    • 0

      Even if all of that were true at law, it won’t work that way in practice. The codicil to my own will shall bequeath my computer and hard drives to my family. (They include my own intellectual property – 11GB and counting – all of which has been uploaded to Google Drive, and which I want sent to the Australian National Library.) If my family chooses to copy their contents, or delete things, who’s to stop them?

    • 0

      We have to keep changing pass words for safety reasons. The safe option is appoint another person as you can on electricity and telco accounts to have authority

  4. 0

    I must admit when sorting out my parents estate I went systematically through their filing cabinet to find every bill and investment and then started an action plan from that point.
    Today everything is on the computer and it is password protected.
    I did give my passwords to a child for safe keeping but they would all be obsolete by now as I change them every time there is a hack alert.
    Probably an offline safe with passwords and username is the safest option.

  5. 0

    I would have thought that bank accounts automatically close down anyway when a person dies so hackers would not be able to use any accounts. Best to give family member all your pass words and store then somewhere safe

  6. 0

    All that matters is your financial records assets and liabilities.
    Get a will done ASAP, and let your beneficiaries know how to access it when youre gone.

    Having beneficiaries named in any investment holdings is also recommended

    • 0

      Good advice. Now a serious question: How does superannuation fit into this?

      I’d also recommend attaching a codicil to the will, including helpful contacts where necessary. e.g. In my case, I have various music manuscripts I’d like donated to the Australian National Library; my codicil will include contacts who can help in that regard.

    • 0

      If you have named the beneficiary on your super fund you may be surprised to know that the fund is under no obligation to give it to them unless that named person is either the spouse or a dependent child. If not then the money goes to the estate and distributed along with everything else.



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